The Foodvalley ecosystem offers three startup and scaleup accelerator programmes, each catering to companies working in food and agriculture at different stages of their development, from small, established firms looking to expand, to start-ups with a technological focus, through to brand new companies seeking help to get off the ground. Here we take a look at how each of the programmes works, and what they have to offer new businesses and entrepreneurs.
StartLife is the most well-established accelerator programme operating in the Foodvalley ecosystem. Founded in 2011 by Wageningen University and Research and Oost NL, the East Netherlands Development Agency, StartLife has built, supported and funded more than 300 new companies in the food and agriculture sectors, and about half of those have been affiliated with Wageningen University & Research in some way.
“StartLife is probably the most focused on technological innovations,” said Thomas van den Boezem, Programme Director of StartLife’s Investor Readiness Programme. “We support very early stage food and agtech start-ups who are in the pre-seed stage.”
The programme provides a loan of €85,000, and this is often the start-ups’ first funding injection, allowing them to make their first steps toward developing their business, expanding their team from one or two to three or four, and then looking to obtain proof of concept such as technical trials in a university setting.
Among the companies it has supported, Cerescon is a rapidly growing high-tech start-up that has developed an automated selective harvesting robot for white asparagus, essentially removing the intensive labour associated with manual asparagus harvesting.
“It is a combination between software innovation and hardware,” said van den Boezem. “In the first place, it is the first machine that is able to harvest these. But it is also selective so it knows which asparagus to leave alone – it is able to distinguish which is ready to harvest and which is not.”
The company is currently testing a functional model with several large asparagus farmers in The Netherlands in cooperation with Wageningen University & Research. Cerescon aims to transform this innovative concept into a successful product, and to claim a global position in automated asparagus harvesting within the next few years.
Another company to have benefited from the StartLife scheme is NutriLeads, which specialises in crop-derived ingredients with clinically proven health benefits. The company began with StartLife before attracting funding under the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, allowing it to invest in clinical trials. It expects its first ingredient to be ready for commercial use in supplements later this year – a carrot-derived fibre intended to support immune function and improve resistance to respiratory infections.
Apart from funding, the StartLife programme also offers training in various areas of business development, such as building a team, financial modelling and market validation. In addition, participants benefit from a network of mentors, and specific expertise from partners including Rabobank, BDO, SHIFT Invest, Oost NL and Wageningen University and Research.
BOX (Blue Ocean XLerator) is a start-up accelerator run by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. It aims to help build companies from the ground up, including putting together a team and scaling up any technology needed to speed company growth.
“It’s our own money so we are more entrepreneurial than accelerators usually are,” said BOX CEO Bert Tournois. “We are entrepreneurs ourselves and are more hands-on.”
The accelerator has a wide remit, covering innovative start-ups working in food, life sciences and agri, but Tournois explains that its approach is to look beyond solutions to current problems, instead aiming to identify potential societal problems 10 years down the line.
“The best success is if you are able to look ahead and solve the problems of the day after tomorrow,” he said. The accelerator has an impressive track record, having set up more than 40 companies with a success rate of 80%. BOX also has its own research and development firms, TDI and TOP, which provide tailored expertise, from research and advisory work to factory design.
Among the companies working with BOX to accelerate growth is Phytonext, an extraction technology specialist. Its pioneering technology preserves valuable plant extracts through a process that does not involve processing at high temperatures or at high pressure.
Tournois explained that Phytonext needed to produce a new type of extractor, and BOX provided the engineering, development, design and manufacturing capabilities to build its first machine.
“This is the most risky stage of development but is much less expensive than you would have if you would outsource that,” he said. “We are currently building the next machine for Phytonext. It’s on schedule and it will be ready within a month. It’s a huge advantage that you have control over these processes.”
In addition, BOX has guided Phytonext to make two important joint ventures in the past year, allowing Phytonext to benefit from its negotiating experience.
“So from a start-up they now have partners on the one hand for growing and processing hemp for CBD, as well as a joint venture with a pharmaceutical firm,” Tournois said. “…This is a huge leap forward for Phytonext. We have more of these joint ventures coming up, which means the growth of the company is pretty much secured. They can stick to what they are doing but immediately tap into larger markets.”
Foodvalley Accelerator is a support and training programme for small, established companies that are looking to scale up their operations. Due to launch in April 2019, it will focus specifically on innovative food and agriculture firms with existing revenues of at least €100,000 who are looking to accelerate their growth.
In contrast to other accelerators and incubators, the Foodvalley Accelerator programme is more of a support and training programme, providing services to spur further business development. It costs €2,500 (VAT excluded) for a year’s membership, and the programme does not require any equity in return.
“It is very different from other accelerators in that there’s no equity string attached,” said Mirik Castro, a Scaleup Pro at Scaleup Company, which has been contracted to run the Foodvalley Accelerator programme. “We don’t take a stake in the company. You pay a fee and we deliver.”
He explained that the project aims to start with a group of 10 to 20 companies, and to add about another 20 companies each year. The programme itself lasts for three years, but the idea is that participants will ‘graduate’ at some point during that period – meaning that they will reach €1 million in revenue.
“We are looking for companies that have already taken the first step and are now looking for the next phase,” he said. “We have a strong emphasis on accountability. We put systems in place with buddies and coaches to make sure they deliver on their own promises. They are often quite alone in their entrepreneurial journey so this gives them some external accountability.”
Part of Castro’s job is to train coaches to be effective, and to put systems in place to track progress. “We want them to actively work hard in this programme,” he said. “It’s not only inspiration but also transpiration.”